A Video Artist and The Art of Social Media by Rachel Bone
Every day for the past three years, hundreds of thousands of people have watched six second clips of a 200 pound gorilla with a cheese doodle complex, an affinity for outdated technology, and a semi-juvenile sense of humor. He conveys his emotions without speaking, using a cell phone as his means of communication. Now he’s making a feature length film and gleefully contemplating the end of his own life. Ladies and Gentlemen, meet Sylvio and his creator, Albert Birney.
Video artist Albert Birney is someone I envy for his unbreakable focus on his work and brilliant deafness to criticism. He legitimately believes in creative ideas as their own sacred entities, without a hint of arrogance. And when he has one it has to be realized, no matter the compromise. The less enviable part is that he’s gone months on quinoa and vitamins with the heat turned off so he could afford to get a feature length film made. He once lived in a basement full of wolf spiders to “enjoy” a year making unpaid music videos with total creative freedom. His subject matter has a sneaky faux naivety. It ranges from refreshingly goofy to bleakly reflective, while never alienating his audience. It is both inspiring and terrifying to watch someone digest the world in this way. His is a passion to which most of us can’t relate, no matter how much we wish we could.
Birney spent the recent decade making music videos, animations, and a feature length musical on 16mm called “The Beast Pageant.” In 2012, attempting an adaptation of a side-story from a friend’s novel, he bought a gorilla costume and started filming alone in a hotel where he was a night porter. A month in, the film was scrapped when Birney joined a cross-country tour with the band The Music Tapes (lead by Julian Koster of Neutral Milk Hotel) playing orchestra chimes and doing stage lighting. In down time between shows, he donned a gorilla mask and began taking short cell phone videos of himself to document his adventure through different towns in the USA. He uploaded the videos to an app called Vine, known for its 6 second limit and endless looping cycle, and named the gorilla Sylvio. He gained a surprising and instant following.
Three years later, Sylvio has starred in over 800 videos and has an army of dedicated fans on the app. But technology and the audience of Vine has changed quickly, so has Birney’s original desire to make short videos. He has recently moved to Baltimore to conclude Sylvio’s story by way of a feature length film, currently in its fundraising stage on Kickstarter. I sat down with him to talk about his use of social media as art, a gorilla mask as social buffer, and the impending conclusion to a three-year obsession.
ALBERT BIRNEY: Art is important. My Grandfather was a minister, and on his deathbed he told my dad [a songwriter & musician], “You are a good man. You make people happy with music. We’re trying to do the same thing, really.”
There’s a downer to Sylvio recently with Vine being just so different than it was in the beginning…when it first started it was like, ‘Oh, here are the weirdos and artists I’ve always been looking for on the internet!’ Now it’s mostly overrun with fifteen year olds.
Rachel Bone: So is that what it was at first? Not the teenagers making video selfies?
There was NONE of that! Everyone I followed was doing their own unique stuff. And we were all commenting on each other – it was totally a community, with people sharing work daily. It was a pretty diverse group. One guy made mostly music videos outside of Vine, one was a newscaster, one a middle school science teacher. We were all so excited and inspired, and that was when it started for me.
I had recently left a great creative community in Rochester, NY, planning to make a new movie in rural Pennsylvania near friends & family there. But PA was instantly very different and isolating. I was in shock. I’d started working at a hotel, and trying to make a movie alone, but suddenly I was getting all this feedback through Vine instead, and filmmaking felt so fresh again. Sylvio came from a need to find a community. But I became pretty obsessed. I wish I could say to friends…to everyone… how sorry I am for that time. I would make three Sylvio Vines a day. It’s all I would do. There had to be a morning, middle, and night one. And I think if I had stopped making them like that I was going to have a breakdown. An existential breakdown of my art, my relationship, my life… Sylvio was keeping me occupied and distracted. I became manic.
Do you see Sylvio as a version of yourself?
He’s a version of myself without anxiety. He’s who I’d like to be. He’s laid back and does things that I don’t have the confidence to do. I would go so far as to say, making “The Beast Pageant” was this way too – when I needed things for making the film, I would just go up and ask. I’d never do that in any other situation. I remember we needed a bald man, and I went up to a bald man at the movie theater and asked him to play a bald man in my film. He agreed immediately.
It must be sort of great to realize people will say yes as often as they do?
Yeah, they’re excited! And I wasn’t self-conscious because I was honoring the film, not myself. I started the Sylvio videos as a way to document the tour I was on. But then I starting finding the right people to follow and got really inspired by their weirdness. Julian encouraged me to use the gorilla suit during his shows. I put it on and we did a few performances with me as Sylvio, and slowly he formed a personality. By the time I got back, I had a fully formed concept on Vine.
One criticism of social media is that people judge themselves against each other, getting depressed over photos of everyone else having seemingly more fun. As this ridiculous gorilla boasting these fun, glorious experiences, rather than a human, there seems to be less straight-up envy from his followers. Do you think you are on to something?
Oh, yeah! I hadn’t thought about that but I like that. I do get a lot of people that say, “Oh I wish I lived in Sylvio’s world,” but it’s true, they aren’t saying it in a way that makes me think they feel inferior. And I write back “Well… you ARE living in Sylvio’s world!” Maybe the truly enlightened person can go for a sunset walk without filming & sharing it (in a gorilla suit), but that’s never been me. Sylvio has maybe helped to push me in that direction though.
In the beginning you made a list of rules for Sylvio for continuity in the way you presented him. Do you still have rules?
They got whittled down, but I do still have them. I never wanted to mention it was a mask or suit. People say, “Nice gorilla suit” and I say, “Nice human suit.” I’ve also been strict about using only technology that Vine allows. For the first year or so, they didn’t offer any editing, so I didn’t edit any Vines until they offered. I wanted to remain true to the medium and use its limits as a challenge.
Vine, and the use of social media as art is such a new thing. Artists using it as a platform broke new ground by using it. Now, however, it’s a hugely popular app for things other than art making. How do you navigate the piles of video selfies to find the respectable art?
I don’t search as much anymore. One by one all the original artists have dropped off. I stayed on Vine because I already have the following there. There are so many side plots I want to finish and I want to complete his story in the same place it started. The ideal final Vine would be Sylvio sitting down with a bowl of popcorn at the premier of his film. If the narrative could wrap up on Vine and be a complete thing, and the movie could be its own thing, then I’d feel satisfied. I explored this character here for a few years and worked out my dreams, feelings, and nightmares with this character, and now I’m no longer excited so I can step away.
Many popular Viners, including you, are able to make a living on Vine because of sponsored posts, or brand placements. How do you choose who to work with, and are there any you’ve turned down?
In the beginning I insisted I wasn’t going to do any ads. But once they started asking… I wasn’t making any income, so it was very difficult to say no. Most let you have pretty full control over the content. I’ve never done one that wasn’t my own concept. What I wrestle with the most is the party aspect. There are lots of kids on Vine, so liquor ads are hard. Bacardi asked me to do some Vines, and I did do some, but they changed direction and didn’t end up airing them and I’m relieved. I took out the Bacardi labels and re-cut those Vines as my own. It’s ok if it’s a nameless drink he’s drinking, but somehow putting a brand on there felt dirty. Target approached me to do Vines of Sylvio opening a box of mystery products and reacting to them happily. I turned that one down.
We put so much emphasis on the idea of artists ‘selling out’ when they accept sponsorship. You’re not pretending the sponsored Vines aren’t sponsored. In fact, many come with hash tags that say they are. So, what is the guilt?
I think maybe guilt just comes from how, maybe this is too lofty, but the idea that the artist is doing this sacred thing that is special and needs to be honored. And maybe we only have a certain number of stories or inspiration in us and by going to shoot some commercial are we wasting a dose of this special thing we have? It helps to think that way. Art is an important thing! Think of how much it touches us in our lives. Children’s books, songs…little things shape you, and art is sacred.
I’m definitely at war with myself about it because I realize that if I’m going to pay rent and keep momentum, I can spend a couple hours on a few ads and do what I want, or I can get a full time job and kill momentum. So this is better for creativity, but it’s going against how I feel about selling out for sure. People now expect art to be free! I have 350,000 fans on Vine, yet so far only 100 people have donated to the Kickstarter we have going for the Sylvio film. Most are friends and family. It’s been very hard to break through to strangers because Sylvio is this thing that’s just been appearing in their feeds for free for three years.
Although you use a very modern technology to make the Vines, Sylvio himself seems more drawn to outdated technology and simple ways. Are you afraid our use of phones, social media and overindulgence in information is changing us for the worse?
Oh, big time. Technology is moving so fast that we’re not stopping to wonder if we should be going this fast or pondering the potential consequences of it. I think it’s human nature to want to improve or make things go faster, but how does it end and what are we ultimately doing to the world? There’s got to be a limit. So yes, I AM terrified.
But you’re protesting it in a unique way by using that very technology to promote the old technology.
Yeah. That’s something I think about a lot. I’m using this new technology to tell stories and it’s glued to my art in a way that I sometimes wish I could get away from. In the end it’s a tool and convenience, but tools used to be harder to use and you’d have to learn how they work first. We’re missing that step. Shooting on film, you’d have to think about what you were about to shoot because it’s so expensive to make. A lot more thought went into it and slowness was a strength. We’re losing our attention spans. If you were to get up and go to the bathroom right now and leave me here, instead of sitting and thinking more about this conversation, I’d pick up my phone. It’s involuntary and sad.
I think about these six second videos and wonder, ‘If I weren’t making these, would all of these ideas be in my head in a different way? And would I be able to harness it and make something much bigger?’ So, because of that, I’ve gotten passionate about making this longer movie.
Your creative style has been much more about getting an idea out there than about honing details. It seems like Vine is a really perfect medium for you. Do you think making a feature length film will kill that impulsiveness for you or dull the mystery of Sylvio in any way?
To me it’s the opposite! This whole time I’ve been giving him little snippets of humanity, but now I get to show you his real personality and feel with him. Six seconds is so quick and it is hard to convey anything bigger than a quick joke or feeling. I’m so sick of telling six second stories! I want to allow the moments to breath.
Which is officially the opposite of sitting in the bathroom, looking at Vine on your phone.
AB: Exactly! It’s getting harder to find those moments. We get our movies on Netflix and they aren’t challenging anymore. Nothing beats sitting in a movie theater with a group of strangers and watching a story unfold. I’d like to throw in a few that make us all think a little bit.
Kickstarter Campaign: https://www.
Albert Birney’s Website: http://abirney.com/
Albert Birney and Silvio’s Vine Page: https://vine.co/SimplySylvio
Author Rachel Bone is an artist and business owner based in Baltimore. Her gouache paintings have been exhibited locally & internationally. Her hand printed apparel company, Red Prairie Press, designs and sells its hand-printed, socially-conscious clothing at craft fairs across the country and wholesale to 45+ stores worldwide.